"I was in a car accident several months ago and hired a personal injury attorney almost immediately. Initially, she was very responsive, returned my calls promptly, keeping me informed of everything. Then, suddenly, silence. I leave messages, am promised a callback, but nothing!
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"Treatment for my injuries is on a lien basis with bills to be paid when the case is resolved, but now I don't know what to do. Should I change lawyers? Thanks, Darlene."
Unhappy or pressured to change lawyers?
I ran Darlene's question by a friend of this column, Southern California personal injury attorney Shawn Steel. His law practice is unique in that he not only represents accident victims, but also health care professionals "who have been badly dealt with by lawyers refusing to honor their contracts with doctors to pay their bills when the case settles."
Steel provided practical advice for health care providers facing that situation in a recent article I wrote, "When Lawyers Refuse to Pay a Client's Doctor Bill."
As he explained, the question of "to change or not to change lawyers" comes up under two different scenarios:
- You've hired a lawyer on a contingent fee basis, but are not satisfied with the legal services provided, or;
- You are being pressured into changing lawyers by friends, family members or some other attorney who wants your case -- which is illegal in most states.
Steel set out four questions clients often ask:
- Do I have to give a reason before changing lawyers?
- Will I owe the first lawyer for time spent on my case?
- Should I wait and see if things get better?
- I signed a lien with the lawyer to pay bills, but if I change attorneys, what happens to that lien?
"You do not need a reason to change lawyers, and what your reader has described is one of the most common -- a failure to communicate, ignoring you," Steel points out.
"But don't fire your lawyer just because your phone call wasn't returned immediately! You've got to be reasonable. And keep in mind that your old attorney has a right to be paid by the new attorney out of settlement proceeds.
"When you feel the relationship is a bad fit, end it immediately. Two or three months is no problem. Lawyers will take your case as not much of a fee has been earned in that short amount of time. Simply stated, the older the case, the less desirable it is to the new attorney, and even good cases get rejected for that reason," he underscores.
What Happens to the Lien I Signed with the First Lawyer to Pay My Bills?
Financially, an auto accident can become a nightmare lasting years if medical and chiropractic bills aren't paid. Clients often think, "But as I had a lien with the first lawyer, it automatically transfers to the second lawyer, right?"
"Unfortunately, that's not the law," Steel emphasizes.
"Changing lawyers extinguishes the lien. Unless a new lien is signed by everyone, a potential costly problem for the patient is around the corner." This is his advice to health care professionals and their patients:
- Health care providers: When becoming aware your patient has a new lawyer, immediately get a new lien signed. If the attorney refuses, bill the client at once -- don't wait! Also, occasionally ask patients if they have the same lawyer.
- Patients: It is potentially damaging to your credit -- and even your ability to get a job in some circumstances -- if your case has been settled without the health care providers being paid and you wind up being sued. If you change lawyers, immediately notify all your health care providers of this fact, with the name, address and phone number of the new lawyer. If you do not do this, you'll have to pay out of your own pocket and could be hounded by a collection agency or taken to court.
Resist Pressure to Change Lawyers
Everyone has a know-it-all relative who will claim to know more than your lawyer, or has "a friend" who is an attorney, "So just drop the lawyer you hired and go with my guy!"
"Clients hear that often," Steel notes. He warns his own clients that before doing anything, when hearing such advice from family members, "Just talk with me."
He's right, but clients often feel a bit intimidated -- even by their own lawyer. Doctors face the same issues, where patients are often reluctant to reveal all that's worrying them or to ask questions about treatment. Add to this the reality that most of us (Donald Trump excepted) take no pleasure in telling an employee, "You're fired!" And that's precisely what your lawyer is -- your employee. But there's more.
A Sad Story from My Own Case Files
Especially in the world of personal injury, where an attorney -- working on a contingent fee of usually one-third to 50% of the settlement amount -- can spend very little time on a case and walk away with thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Lawyers do not ever want to lose those cases, but it happens, and sometimes with disastrous consequences for the client, as I learned some years ago.
The son-in-law and granddaughter of a client were killed in an auto accident caused by an employee of a major oil company, and there was no issue as to fault. Illegally -- violating the Rules of Professional Conduct -- a law firm that did nothing but personal injury work, asked a friend of my client to get the family to switch from me to them by bad-mouthing me. They succeeded.
Instead of promptly working out a settlement that would have kept the family out of court and not reliving that horrible accident, suit was filed -- raising the firm's fee from a third to 50% -- and it dragged on for over two years, leading to the young widow's mental breakdown.
This allowed the oil company to offer a fraction of what the case was worth, as they knew she would not want to testify. The family accepted their offer.
Shortly afterward, my client -- the grandfather -- came to our office, told us what had happened, and began to cry. "We were so stupid, Dennis, having known you all these years and then betraying our friendship. That decision to fire you was the worst of my life. I am so sorry. I was embarrassed. My cowardice -- not telling you that the other lawyer wanted our case -- had horrible consequences. The family will never forgive me."
Always Remember This
The moral to that story for readers is simple. For whatever reason, be upfront with your attorney, and voice what is bothering you. Clients have a right to be treated fairly by their lawyers, and it is a two-way street. No one likes to be fired for no reason. Lawyers have feelings, too.
Steel points out one more issue facing accident victims and their families:
"There are predators out there, people who work for lawyers and get an illegal kickback. If you get approached, call your lawyer right away, as it is illegal for anyone from another law firm to contact you if you are already represented."
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